“I heard [Picasso] complain about how all the people who came
to see him and saw him give new life to old bits of tulle and cardboard,
string and corrugated metal, crumpled rags from the garbage can
thought they were doing him a favour to bring him remnants of splendid
fabric to make pictures out of. He didn’t want them, he wanted
the true refuse of human life something poor, dirty, and contemptible.”
Louis Aragon (Spies, 2000:13)
Robert Hughes writes that the tradition of modern sculpture, with its welded and assembled sheets of metal and its open and constructed form, was derived from a small guitar that Picasso made in 1912 (Hughes, www.time.com ).Picasso radically expanded the techniques and materials used in sculpture during the twentieth century. Besides using bronze, plaster and wood, he employed found objects and the ‘fetishism that arises from the inexplicable and the overlooked’ (Spies, 2000:13). His penchant for violating convention set in motion the combination of found objects, an ironic approach to functional value, and a presentation of discarded pieces of consumer culture which have become inherent in artistic practice today. This essay will concentrate on describing the particular use of materials in Picasso’s work and how they have determined its outcome by assessing particular sculptures done throughout his lifetime.
In 1912 Georges Braque (1882-1963), Picasso’s partner in the initial development of Cubism, was continually trying to adapt craft techniques to Cubism. Contrasting with the nineteenth century attitude which saw craftsmanship as secondary, an appreciation of craftsmanship was common to both Braque and Picasso, allowing them to manipulate and experiment with many types of materials (Spies,
2000: 17). Along with cut-out templates, Braque used sand and plaster mixed with paint to create a relief surface. By the time he had shown these new works to Picasso they had become three-dimensional. He had been assembling sculptural objects together, using paper and cardboard, and then painting and drawing over them. Braque conducted these experiments as a way of assessing their ability for creating illusion (Walther, 1986:207). Picasso then began making paper collages of his own and, when exploring the illusion of spatial values, began making three-dimensional work. These guitars were crudely made out of cardboard and left uncoloured.
By 1914 Picasso had used the cut-out elements of the cardboard Guitar to make one out of sheet metal. A constructive and additive procedure was the profoundly innovative characteristic of these sculptures, along with the use of such foreign materials as sheet metal, wire and stovepipe pieces. These constructivist works were based upon new principles in which the material played the primary role. With his sheet metal Guitar 1914, Picasso had also broken with tradition by using ‘found objects’, in this case a stove pipe to represent the hole of the guitar. The introduction of these new materials meant that he was able to show the negative void in sculptural form, thereby increasing the means by which sculpture could express its three-dimensionality (Markus, www.tau.ac.il). The flat sheets of metal acted as planes as well as lines, thus defining the form and also containing the negative space. Wire and nails represented the strings while pins held the whole piece together. Finally, to unify the work, Picasso painted the whole piece a muted brown in accordance with the principles of Analytical Cubism.
Guitar,1914, sheet metal and wire, Museum of Modern Art
After concentrating on the three-dimensional possibilities of applied set and costume design, Picasso returned to sculpture around 1928. Motivated by the desire to create a monument for the poet Guillame Apollinaire, he turned to Apollinaire’s own description for a monument of the dead poet Croniamantal in La Poete Assasine, ‘a statue of nothing, of a void…’ (Spies, 2000:117). Through this description Picasso wanted to realise the opposite of the nineteenth century idea of ‘the monument’ and, like his work with the Guitar, describe the reversal of volume. After viewing the sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz, which was also exploring the negative void, Picasso’s sketchbooks began to feature points and lines based upon star constellations. He gave four of these drawings to his friend Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942), who was a sculptor and proficient metal worker. Picasso envisaged scaffolding; ‘these sculptures of poles and antennae executed on a large scale, in pylons of iron or some other material’ (Spies, 2000:118).
Gonzalez executed four maquettes in reduced scale which were fashioned out of thin iron wire. The resulting sculptures successfully conveyed the immaterial spatial quality that Picasso had visualized, playing abstract form against representational, spatial against graphic with line and space both being juxtaposed. The iron rods represent material volume, yet at the same time have the illusion of two-dimensionality. They can be interpreted as outlining the figure and also outlining the air which is invisible, therefore achieving a ‘monument of nothingness’ (Walther, 1986:342). These maquettes were rejected by the monument’s selection committee as being too radical and were not realised in large-scale versions until 1962. The materiality that Picasso had conceived and Gonzalez executed became particularly important for future sculptors, such as Alexander Calder, who concentrated on welded metal structures.
Project for a Monument to Guillame Apollinaire, 1962, painted steel, Museum of Modern Art
Picasso continued his exploration of metal in his sketchbooks and also through his association with Gonzalez, whose welding techniques enabled Picasso to radicalize his forms and compositions. Welding, soldering and smelting allowed him to use iron wire, scrap metal and flat metal planes to create more ambitious and complex works. Already being aware of some extraordinary ethnological artworks made of metal in the TrocaderoMuseum in Paris, Picasso produced six large pieces of work with Gonzalez in the period between 1929 and 1931. The most complex of these was Woman in a Garden (1929), a piece which Gonzalez did not execute from sketches but which Picasso improvised from elements, such as a table body, to create the sculpture. This work is an assemblage rather than a construction and is also rather contradictory to the craft of metalwork itself through its use of unreconstructed scrap. It is a dynamic and rhythmic structure of line and gesture described by arts writer Werner Hoffmann as: ‘The piecing together of formal elements… rods and planes collide with injurious sharpness…’ (Spies, 2000:137). As with the iron wire works, Picasso’s concern was with transparency, with the lines in the work being paramount.
It was reported by the critic Andre Salmon that Picasso was highly amused by this form of work and enjoyed rummaging in the scrap heap for iron to perfect it. Also, the Surrealist Andre Breton noted Picasso’s freedom in handling the material: ‘He even sought out the perishable and ephemeral for its own sake…’ (Spies, 2000:138). The assembled elements of the sculpture were then intentionally joined in a coarse and visible way, avoiding technical perfection, which lends it a quality of post-modernist self-reflexivity. Afterward Picasso painted the whole piece white to give it the appearance of uniformity. As the work had been designed for outside, a later bronze version was cast and welded by Picasso, which the critic Grace Glueck describes as being a ‘wild and compelling’ open-form assemblage that suggests both a woman and a garden fused in a poetic vision (www.nytimes.com).
In the mid ‘30s Picasso began a more extensive use of mechanically textured surfaces. Form played a secondary role to clear textures, such as the flowing parallel folds of corrugated cardboard representing the fluting of early Greek sculptures. Woman With Leaves (1934) contrasts these corrugated cardboard pleats in the lower body with vegetal veining of elm leaves pressed into fresh plaster. The surface of the sculpture consists almost entirely of adopted textures. Picasso considered this work to be one of his great achievements (Withers, 1975:72). Subsequently, the combinations of objects and materials began to play an ever more important role with the free interpretation of sculptural form and quotation from reality allowing a simple integration of real elements.
A good example of this is Head of a Bull(1942) which is the most famous of Picasso’s reproduced sculptural works. By achieving the simplest mode of sculptural expression, the coupling together of two unaltered bicycle parts, Picasso intended that the elements of the work should not be isolated by the consciousness. He understood that the process of assembling these ‘ready made’ works could be undone to become the functional objects again; that the functional value never completely disappears. Roland Penrose wrote that Picasso’s bull, though initially humorous, through its combination of material can also create a metamorphosis which can challenge our sense of reality (Green, 1985:73). A new viewer experiences Picasso’s synthetic illumination in reverse after realising that the sculpture is constructed of two visually and functionally separated bicycle parts. The material unity is completed through the process of bronzing.
However, Picasso says that the danger of the unifying nature of the bronze material is that the viewer may only see the ‘bull’s head and no longer the saddle and the handlebars rendering the work uninteresting’ (Green, 1985:71). The work needs the optical illusion of the metaphorical tension created between the two objects and the aesthetic image they create. Picasso anticipated a further stage in which the sculpture could be reduced again to its separated state and be reused in its original function (Green, 1985:72). By taking something that is rubbish and using it in an unexpected way is the visual renewal which Picasso made to twentieth century art. This approach could be associated with the period of war and its ‘characteristic peddling and use of scraps’ (Spies, 2001:216). Rubbish, garbage and scrap gained increasing importance in his sculptural work.
Bull’s Head 1943
Handlebars and seat of a bicycle
Picasso’s sculptural activity was often confined to sketch models. These were an experimental approach to materials to try and force expression from formless and contentless elements. They were works influenced by ethnographical pieces such as masks from the Belgian Congo in which found objects are arranged together. Also ancient Gallo-Roman coins were another influence in his clay-moulded reliefs. This may have been due to the Surrealist interest in the metaphorical importance of objects. Whereas Marcel Duchamp was also interested in tiny works such as these and saving them in a suitcase (Spies, 2000:220), Picasso was interested in these reduced models because of their ‘intimacy and concealment’ (Spies, 2000:221). His paper pieces were not cut but torn; sometimes mouths or eyes were burned in with a cigarette. The paper was sometimes folded to create a spatial effect. Pebbles, bones, pieces of wood and tiny tin caps became birds, fish, foxes, goats, vultures, masks, children’s faces, death heads, cigars and nit combs embellished with a pair of lovemaking lice. They anticipated the sheet metal sculptures that would come in the 1950s and 1960s.
Picasso also produced sculptures whose appearance was mostly dependent upon materials that had a particular form or statement. His work was always grounded in the representational, and in pieces such as Woman with Baby Carriage 1950 he used a wide variety of different pieces of metal, such as bits from a real pram, but also cake pans and a stove plate, modelled in clay, which he then stuck together not leaving any doubt as to the fragmentary nature of the elements which had formed the sculpture. In his She –Goat 1950 he went about the assemblage in a different manner, only looking for materials that he would need to form the image that he envisaged. The sculpture consists of materials such as a wicker basket, palm leaves, bits of metal tube, flower pots and pieces of china, but these are no longer recognizable having been stuck together underneath a layer of plaster. Goat Skull and Bottle 1954 was also created from a number of found materials such as bicycle handlebars and large bolts for the eyes. The goat’s head is covered in a layer of corrugated cardboard that gives a textural direction of the hair; nails are used for the tufts in the ears and also for the rays of light emanating from the candle nestled in the bottle. Again the sculpture was unified by casting in bronze but he also painted it in shades of grey that matched the sombre palette of his post-war years. As in his other sculptures, the found elements never quite give up their original identities (www.moma.org).
Goat Skull and Bottle. 1951, Painted Bronze, Museum of ModernArt, N.Y.
Picasso also used wood from crates, sofa feet, broomsticks, painting stretchers and sometimes an easel. Therefore these constructions and assemblages were largely determined by the materials used. In 1912 he had begun composing guitars using the same visual values in wood, cardboard and sheet metal. Further on, in the stage sculptures proposed for the ballet Parade1917, his sketches depict the use of boards and wooden elements. The Bathers 1956 with their clearly demarcated rectangular bodies are further investigations into these designs. Lines were carved and burned-in to convey a formal appearance along with a red and black paint transparently applied by rubbing. On the child’s face small wooden pegs are fixed to the disc of the head. The sculptures of this period were made of thin planes referencing painting in their near flatness.
Although Picasso was mainly recognized as a painter in his lifetime, perhaps it was because his sculptures were generally confined to his own collection that gave him the audacity to consider the ephemeral and unusual as material. Although the influence of primitivism and the inspiration of artists from such places Central Africa and Oceania must also attest to his ready acceptance of found materials. Moreover, he obviously did not feel the constraints of having to consider the durability of many of his sculptures, yet when he did he ironically resorted to the tradition of bronze casting. It was the bronzing of these ephemeral works which can unfortunately relegate some of them to quaintness, through the loss of the surprise of their materiality. This was an unfortunate result as artists such as Marcel Duchamp never felt the inclination to unify their sculptures through this process and the use of such materials were philosophically important to the work. However, it is generally accepted that Picasso’s sculptures are ‘among the most radical, thought-changing artworks of the modern period’ (Dickerman, www.moma.org).
Dickerman, L., http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/exhibitions.php?id=8722&ref=calendar Retrieved: August 10, 2008
Glueck, G., 1982, Art View: Picasso Revolutionized Sculpture Too, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F02E6D81038F935A1575AC0A964948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=allRetrieved: August 7, 2008
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Green, J., Picasso’s Visual Metaphors, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 19, No.4 (Winter, 1985) pp.61-76, University of Illinois Press
Hughes, R., www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/picasso.html Retrieved: July 14, 2008
Markus, R. Picasso’s Guitar 1912: The transition from Analytical to Synthetic Cubism, www.tau.ac.il?arts/projects/PUB/assaph-art?assaph2?articles_assaph?13Markus.pdf Retrieved: August 5 2008
McCully, M., Picasso Painter/Sculptor. London, Tate Gallery, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 136, No. 1094 (May, 1994), pp. 326-328
Morisset, V., http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-Picasso-EN/ENS-Picasso-EN.html#image09 Retrieved: August 15, 2008
Spies, W, 2000, Picasso: The Sculptures, Hatje Cantz Publishers, Stuttgart
Walther, I, 1986, Pablo Picasso, Benedkt Taschen Verlag, Bonn
Withers, J., The Artistic Collaboration of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez, Art Journal Vol.35 No. 2 (Winter 1975-76) pp. 107-114, College Art Association
Withers, J., Review: Werner Spies: Sculpture By Picasso, Art Journal Vol. 35 No.1 (Autumn 1975) pp.70-72, College Art Association
What I should like to bring home to you is the incredible heroism
of a man such as Picasso whose moral isolation at that period
was something frightful, for none of his painter friends had followed him.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884 – 1979)
In 1907 a work that revolutionised artistic conventions, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was conceived by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It has only been since his estate was left to the state of France in 1987 that it has been possible to trace the progressive thoughts and ideas that evolved to become this monumental landmark painting. After examining the origins of Picasso, this essay will endeavour to reveal the major influences, features and reactions to a work of art that has become the cornerstone of modern art.
Picasso was one of the first artists to challenge artistic convention and move into the realm of abstraction. This artist, whose contributions into new ways of representing the world made him one of the most important in art history, prolifically explored almost every artistic medium in his long life. By the time he had entered the Barcelona Academy of Fine Arts at age fourteen, he had already mastered the 19th century Realist technique, thanks to early tuition from his father who was a drawing teacher. Through a deep curiosity and capacity for assimilation, his determined spirit shook off all family and social restraints and, after settling inParis in 1904, began an enduring experiment with innovation.
Picasso was in constant dialogue with all the art he had ever seen; the European tradition, Spanish history, other civilizations, as well as his contemporaries. In her article on Picasso’s influences, Miriam Cosic informs that Picasso’s Spanish roots were with Velaquez, El Greco and Goya, whom he would have studied as a student. The masters of his immediate past were Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as the Paris-centred modernism of contemporaries such as Matisse and Braque. Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee Picasso inParis, says that maybe the real idea for Picasso was to grab the essential, ‘art could never be decorative or symbolic for him.’(Cosic, 2008, p.4). He cross-examined works intensely, searching for the key idea or the ‘revolutionary aspect that bestows power and longevity’(ibid. p.5). Cosic also reveals that Picasso greatly admired Cezanne, whose method taught him that ‘painting has intrinsic value, independent of the realistic representation of the objects portrayed and inherent in the spatial construction and brushwork. Archaic Iberian sculpture and masks from the Ivory Coastwere also to hold a fascination for him and it was the examination of this art that would influence further breakthroughs in 1906.
There was widespread interest at the time in ‘primitive art’ which was thought to articulate a primal force of human expression. Picasso came into contact with this art for the first time when he was shown a small wooden statue in the studio of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The art historian Lorraine Levy informs that it was said that Picasso was overwhelmed by it and held it in his hands all night (Levy, 1990, p.48). With a simple language of two holes for eyes, a triangle for the mouth, the geometry of such statues transfigured reality. Picasso realised that one should not ‘seek to paint what one saw, but what one felt, even if it meant deforming the subject in order to arrive at its essence’ (ibid. p.48).
However, it was in 1905 that modern art’s truly new idiom began. Developing backwards, Picasso made a well-considered and multi-layered engagement with tradition. He cut back his deployment of colour, reinforced his forms by simplifying them to a concentrated essential. 1905 was also the year that the Fauves provoked controversy with their revolutionary use of autonomous colour at the autumn Salon in Paris. That Salon also had an Ingres retrospective and a small showing of Cezanne’s paintings. From Cezanne, Picasso took his laws of rendering form and colour, whereas from Ingres he took the academic draughtsman’s perfection of form. By the summer of 1906, after a trip to Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees, a rudimentary simplicity appeared in Picasso’s work. He had begun depicting human form in terms of its plastic volume, simplifying it to a few blocks and therefore something much less naturalistic. Picasso biographer, Ingo Walther, declares that the two portraits in 1906 were precursors to this new idiom; Self Portrait with Palette and Portrait of Gertrude Stein. The principles upon which Picasso was working were seen as beginning in these two works. He ignored perspective and the logic of natural appearance in Gertrude Steins’ portrait, giving her a head that is an irregular block with asymmetrical eyes and nose. In his self portrait, a professional technique is ignored altogether with colour being rawly applied, making no illusions but merely establishing a form (Walther, 1992, p.14).
In the summer of 1907, these experiments culminated in the major work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, recognised as a key work in modern art. For decades little was known how this work came to be painted- therefore vague opinions were formed to fill the gaps of knowledge. The painting was begun in the autumn of 1906 upon Picasso’s return fromSpain. After doing sketches all winter, the first composition was ready in March 1907, which shows seven people in a brothel. Picasso then altered the form and composition considerably by cutting the number of figures to five, and it was this version which he transferred to canvas. He did not stop sketching further ideas but by July 1907 had painted the final work after a staggering 809 preliminary sketches. Walther contests that the sheer rigorousness of Picasso’s application shows that this work was executed in a rational and consistent manner (Walther, 1992, p.155).
Each part of the picture has a fundamental importance, beginning with the size of the canvas, which looks like a square, but is not. It is a difference that creates an impression of irresolution. ‘Everything in this picture teaches us of the inadequacy and randomness of customary concepts in visual representation’ (Walther, 1992, p.153). The colour scheme is both monochromatic and contrastive with the figures coloured from whitish yellow to brown, contrasting with the blue that divides the right group from the left. The blue tonal differences weaken the shock of the transition, and are modified again by being placed casually with the classical golden section. The illuminating effect of light is abandoned with light and dark areas merely used to point out the drama of the figures. ‘Empty space disappears- this is the greatest organisational innovation- and a spiky design jerks across the surface and shatters spatial continuity (Haftmann, 1965, p.70)
An irregular tripartite scheme is given with the triangular table that points upwards as the centre axis. The axis is also occupied by the middle figure whose arms restate the axis by inverting the triangle. This is a classical symmetrical composition of an ideal yet austere kind. In contrast, classical perspective has been obliterated with the only spatial depth in the work being held by the overlapping of figures. Picasso has also painted contradicting viewpoints, with the lower half of the painting looking up to the subjects, while the upper section is indefinite. The bodies are seen at once from the front and the side, lines and blocks of colour being used to make de-formations in parts of the figures. The painting is ‘a meticulously considered, scrupulously calculated visual experience without equal’ (Walther, 1992, p. 160).
The picture that he had painted seemed to all of them something crazy
or monstrous. Braque…declared that it seemed to him that it was as if
someone had drunk paraffin in order to spit out flames, and Derain told
me to my face that one day Picasso would be found hanging
behind this big picture of his, so desperate did the enterprise seem.
For weeks Picasso had not allowed anyone to look at what he was working on, and when he finally showed his contemporaries the work ‘he was completely and unanimously disowned’ (Levy 1990, p.52). The collector,Leo Stein, asked facetiously if Picasso was trying to paint the fourth dimension, whereas Matisse was furious and mystified. Only Kahnweiler, who was later to become Picasso’s art dealer, understood the genius that was Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso turned the painting to face the wall and did not show it again for another twenty years. However, the effect on his contemporaries was profound and the painting is seen to be the beginning of Analytical Cubism.
Contemporary analysis of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and of its preliminary studies, show that the painting was truly radical. Walther asserts that Picasso had reconceived European art tradition in its entirety and used its elements to create a new visual language. He had not intended to break with tradition but he did want to disrupt, perhaps destroy convention. ‘This painting, more than any other work of European Modernism, is a wholly achieved analysis of the art of painting and of the nature of beauty in art’ (Walther, 1992, p.163).
It is recognised that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not only broke with tradition but destroyed the whole concept of beauty in Western art. Cubism and modernist doctrines were derived from it. Hidden from view for such a substantial amount of time, the effects of the painting continued to reverberate through the minds of the artists who reacted so violently to it. The painting continued to influence its effect exponentially through their work and, even today, retains its ability to disturb and shock.
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Ed. Kleiner & Mamiya, Art Through The Ages, 2005, ThompsonWadsworth,Los Angeles
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